Good soccer players are often unaware of how they got good

Once, when I coached soccer, a player had spent a few weeks doing the ball homework I assigned and showed some noticeable progress in a game by dribbling past a defender, instead of kicking the ball into space and chasing it.

I said, “It looks like that ball work is starting to pay off.”

He responded, “I don’t think so. I think soccer is just starting to click for me.”

Those types of experiences stick in my mind when I hear the answers when I ask good adult players how they got good.

I expect to hear that they worked their butts off, they loved playing with the ball more than anybody else or had family members that knew about soccer.

But, they usually say that they’ve always been “a natural.”

Like my former player, maybe their ego keeps them from objectively analyzing what contributed to their development. It’s less magical to think a skill can be acquired through repetition than to believe that somehow you have a natural gift.


Compare and contrast: pro/rel vs. closed league attitude

In the MLS, Luton Town FC’s stadium would have barred them from entry into the MLS.

In England, it does not. While the Premier League is evaluating options for their home stadium to meet their Professional League Standards, they are not barring Luton Town FC from entering the PL because its current stadium doesn’t make the cut.

Recently, Don Garber, MLS commissioner expressed concern about MLS teams playing Open Cup games on inferior fields of non-MLS opponents, saying it’s not a good product and not what viewers want to see.

I’ve often seen business leaders mistake their own personal preferences for those of their customers and I have often seen them to be way off.

Years ago, when I tuned into an FA Cup game and saw one of the top PL teams playing against a club I never heard of in a stadium that looked like a high school or small college stadium and the top pros didn’t seem the least bit bothered by it, I was intrigued.

I had never seen anything like that and it got me more interested in learning how sports was structured there.

I think MLS places too much emphasis on the entertainment value of window dressing, like stadiums and game times, and not enough what is about 10x more important — how the good the soccer is on the field.

And, yes, the top PL team (or mostly its B team) handled the small club in the FA Cup withough, even in an inferior stadium. Critics of pro/rel would say that was a boring game because, of course, the team with the bigger payroll won.

From an casual entertainment standpoint, that’s probably true.

I didn’t think it was boring. I found it really interesting to see the differences in the level of play — the quality of touch on the ball, the speed of play, the wider variety of options, less predictability, quality of finishes, passing, tactics and athleticism.

I also thought it was interesting to see the lower level team just get the chance to match up against their heroes and maybe spot a player or two on their squad that looked more on level with the top team.

Those things are harder to see when both teams on the field are on the same level in most of those aspects.

“Why would someone invest $300 million in MLS with the threat of relegation?”

This is a common question posed by the strange opponents to promotion/relegation in the U.S.

I say ‘strange’ because I find it a bit strange at how concerned these folks are with billionaires’ investments, while nobody has asked the billionaires what they think. Many of these billionaires have invested in clubs that are in promotion/relegation systems. So, it seems by their own actions, the fear of being relegated isn’t a big concern.

But, also, the folks who don’t want to replicate the structure of soccer in other countries seem fine with copying other things, like their team name conventions (e.g. [City Name] FC or [City Name] United) and uniforms.

Why be against copying the structure of soccer and not be against copying these aspects?

Pro/rel is to find out who plays the best soccer

This point gets lost in debates over pro/rel.

The main goal of closed leagues, like the MLS and NFL is entertainment. When folks talk about the importance of parity in a league, they advocate for entertainment value. They think parity keeps more fans engaged longer because more feel like their team has a chance of winning each game and the big prize of the league championship.

The main goal of open leagues with promotion/relegation, like the pyramid league structure in English soccer, is to find out who plays the best soccer.

Advocates of parity dismiss that as boring because it’s easy to predict who will win the league: one of the the teams that spends the most on players.

They also are quick to dismiss that hundreds of millions, if not a billion or so, fans around the world disagree with them.

It may just be me, but when I find myself believing that what I think is better than what hundreds of millions people think I see that as sign that I might be missing something. Rather than assume that I know better than them, I ask what I might be missing.

Advocates of parity are sure they are right. They see NFL, MLB, as NBA as evidence to support their belief — because they have done pretty well based on the parity model — and write off support for the pro/rel soccer leagues as a result that those countries love soccer more than other sports (while ignoring that could be the same reason why the NFL, MLB and NBA have done well here).

But, still, I would find that explanation lacking. Do hundreds of millions of fans really just put up with super club dominance and don’t know what they’re missing with parity? I don’t think so.

“Super League: The War for Football” on Apple TV

I’ve watched 3 episodes, so far. Here are some of my thoughts, so far.

I’m very impressed with explanations and graphics used to explain how European soccer competitions work, with pro/rel pyramids and the Champions League.

I’m also impressed with the show’s ability to get to heart of the pro/rel debate and give a fair representation for folks on both sides, though, so far, I think those against pro/rel may feel the show is not sympathetic to them.

But, so far, I recommend watching it just for that.

Here are some more thoughts.

At one point, the show points out that some UEFA revenue gets filtered back to the lower division clubs. I need to do more research on what that means. Revenue from what and how much do clubs receive? To my knowledge, that doesn’t happen in Concacaf or US Soccer, or if it does, I’m unaware of how much of this money makes it back to lower division clubs.

Here’s an attempt to sum up the schools of thought for and against the super league.


A few Super Clubs believe they are the reason football is so popular and they are not receiving their just rewards and that UEFA and lower div clubs are riding their coattails.

The Super Club owners appear to fear market research that shows younger generations aren’t watching football as much.

They think young people will watch more if there were more ‘blockbusters’ (meetings of the best clubs) and if the competition was closer, like in American sports leagues (amazing how many NFL games come down to the last minute, isn’t it?).


The few Super Clubs are somewhat riding the coattails of the world sport that FIFA created. FIFA and UEFA is all about keeping soccer accessible to small clubs, because they feel this is where the base level of value comes from.

It just so happens, that since the Super Clubs do spend the money to bring together the best players, they see a lot of football’s value concentrated, but that really starts at that local club level in sparking interest, finding and developing talent.

Thoughts on each:

The Super Club’s owner’s interpretation of market research reminds me of company’s I’ve worked with. It seems overly simplistic. Maybe they don’t really care and are using research just as way to bolster their side. But, if they are truly concerned about the future because younger people are tuning in less, I’d pose this question.

Tuning in less compared to what? Compared to older generations at the moment or compared to prior younger generations 10, 20 and 30 years ago?

I’ve seen company managers make the mistake of reacting to the former, believing it was a sign of things to come so they need to do something now! But, when they do the comparison to prior generations of young folks, they find that viewership is either about the same or better. Which means, that sometimes it takes awhile to grow into viewing a sport. It turns out, young folks have a lot of things to do with their time. But, as they get older and settle down, watching the match becomes something they do more.

Recently on Twitter, Alexi Lalas analogized pro-pro/rel folks in the US of being for letting someone live in someone else’s house rent free. In this case, he said that turning MLS into pro/rel would allow clubs that get promoted into MLS to benefit from all the investment MLS has made.

This reminded me of the Super Club/UEFA tension. The Super Clubs thought they were soccer. But, when UEFA said it would ban Super Clubs and its players from participating in UEFA/FIFA sanctioned competitions, like the clubs’ home leagues or the World Cup, then that pretty much ended the Super Club.

It made me think of Lalas’ analogy. Whom is living in whose house rent free?

The Super Clubs realized how much of their value was tied to these competitions. They claimed UEFA acted in a monopolistic manner and I think that may still be in court on that.

But, regardless of the legal outcome, it gets to the truth of how much value the Super Clubs owe to FIFA. A lot. Maybe most.

These clubs could go it alone and break free of FIFA altogether, but they know that would basically be starting from scratch with a brand new sport that might look and feel like soccer, but would not likely have the best players and people would not tune in and their clubs would quickly lose value.

Finally, what strikes me is how all of these arguments also apply to MLS, which is basically a super league in the U.S. and operates as an approved FIFA exception to the very same sporting merit principle codified in FIFA’s guidelines, that was staunchly applied to keep the Super League from forming.

I’m wondering when others will notice that.

“Home Field Disadvantage: How the Organization of Soccer in the United States Affects Athletic and Economic Competitiveness”

In the Michigan Law Review, Carolina Velarde, does a great job of explaining the complex particulars of the overly bureaucratic soccer organization in the U.S. in her paper titled, Home Fie Disadvantage: How the Organization of Soccer in the United States Affects Athletic and Economic Competitiveness (HT: The Chris Kessel on Twitter).

Such a great title. The way soccer has been organized in the U.S., which we are gaslighted into believing to help it, hurts it, giving us a disadvantage on the world stage.

In an attempt to summarize, Velarde lays out how the soccer powers that be in the U.S. have used the VERY laws meant to protect consumers, by restraining monopoly powers and maintaining competitiveness, are used for the opposite, to achieve virtual monopoly powers and keep a lid on competition.

Pro/rel enables competing ‘schools of thoughts’

This is a great podcast discussion between Gary Kleiban and Kephern Fuller during the 2022 World Cup, but covering a lot of ground about soccer in the U.S. and around the world.

Really good points at 47 minutes in about competing schools of thought. We don’t have that in soccer in the U.S.

We don’t have a way for competing ideas to be tested and trialed against each other. This goes for players, positions, tactics and coaches.

We tend to have one school of thought about these things all the way up the chain.

One example they mention that our school of thought considers a good midfielder to be what they call “a destroyer,” which is a very athletic player who can run all day, win 50/50s and tackle the ball off opposing players.

We tend to favor those, at all levels, over midfielders they call “creators.” Creators have a better touch on the ball, are creative in creating scoring chances. Creators are more like point guards in basketball. They also do things that aren’t that obvious to the casual observer that tilts the advantage in their team’s favor.

I’ve witnessed the affection of the destroyers at all levels, too. A destroyer winning tackles gets “ohs and ahs”, while a creator pressuring the play toward a 1v1 mismatch in favor of our team doesn’t get noticed.

A destroyer getting beat on a tackle when he’s the last man and then making a recovery run and committing a ‘professional’ foul is a ‘smart play.’ Never mind, he made a bad percentage calculation in going in for the tackle in that situation in the first place.

On the other hand, a creator that consistently makes pinpoint passes resulting good scoring chances are written off, if even noticed. I can see it on the faces of the casual observer and coaches alike, “lucky pass” or “anyone can pass the ball.” I wondered how many ‘lucky passes’ it takes to get someone to consider that maybe there’s more to it. Turns out, folks, including coaches, can stay stuck in their biases even with large amounts of counter evidence. And, when that player happens to make one mistake (as all players will do), that is used to write off all the good they have done.

Fuller had something similar on the previous podcast he made with Gary. He said that it’s not that he thinks he has all the answers. He would not have picked Erling Haaland, for example, when he was younger because he doesn’t fit the prototypical model of what he thought of as a striker.

But, that’s why it’s good to allow for competing schools of thought, because someone else can disagree with Fuller and give Haaland a shot and prove to everyone that maybe they ought to reconsider what they think of as a striker.

But, folks like Haaland or even Messi may have had a tough time getting attention in the U.S. because they do not fit our predominant and largely uncontested school of thought.

I know that’s hard for folks to understand. In their simple world, the ‘cream rises to the top.’ They don’t understand how deeply biases can run to keep that from happening.

I heard fairly recently the school of thought that wrote Haaland off as just a “tap in specialist.” The first question I posed when I heard this was, well where are the other tap in specialists that score so much? They should be a dime a dozen if tapping it in is all it takes.

And, I’ll personally put that one to bed. I attended Haaland’s first game with Man City, in the exhibition match in Green Bay. I sat behind the goal where Man City was warming up. I love being close to those world class players because I get a really good sense of the quality of their touch. I remember thinking how good of touch De Bruyne, Grelish and Foden had in the warmups and then Haaland touched the ball and I could see he was a notch better and was shocked that you could be even better than the best.

So, how does pro/rel enable competing school of thoughts? By putting more of those schools of thought to the test on the field, rather than where they take place now, in the politics of soccer.

Thanks for reading.

MLS is no transcendent soccer

It occurred to me today while reading some back and forth on pro/rel, soccer in the US and and in Europe that opponents of pro/rel miss something.

A key knock against pro/rel, from critics, is super clubs that win or contend for their league titles over and over again. These critics like the American system, that handicaps teams through a myriad of salary, draft and roster rules to achieve more competitive parity and less super clubs.

One comment I read today, pointed out that comparing the number of teams/clubs that have won the championship in MLS to Premier League is not the right comparison. A better comparison is to the two leagues under the Premier League in the U.K.’s soccer pyramid.

Those leagues have far more champions and a large number of clubs that have been promoted into the league and relegated down to the next league.

But, why compare to those leagues? After all, MLS is the top league in the U.S.

First, the level of competition in those leagues are more on par with MLS, because the payrolls are more on par.

But, that comment made me think there’s a more important reason.

The top leagues around the world have created what the critics the would call super clubs. These critics don’t understand why its fun to watch the same clubs in contention year after year.

But, for fans, those leagues have created clubs and soccer that transcends geography.

What does that mean?

Lots of folks around the world, not just in their home cities, follow Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, PSG and Bayern Munich, among others. Even more have heard of them.

The attention garnered by teams in MLS and the 2nd and 3rd tiers in Europe is limited to the populations in the towns around them or people with affinities to those towns.

The big clubs transcend this geography because they have the world’s best players and best coaches. Their coaches are less constrained by budget to get the players that can execute their systems.

Soccer fans around the world want to watch the best players and best clubs for lots of reasons. They enjoy watching the top players and teams.

They want to see how the top play. They want to see what’s possible. They want to see results of all the hard work those players put in and the talent that goes with. They want to see how the coach has pieced together a masterpiece to execute their vision and how they handle adversity and adjust game plans, rather than watching a coaches make due because they that had to make tough trade-offs to make a budget.

While I think it’s tough to peel the apart the affinity folks have for a club vs the club’s players and performance is tough, Man United is a good example of what happens when you don’t have the performance. They have good players, but that’s not enough and and the club has lost a little bit of the transcendent footing over the past few years as they have struggled with performance.

I’d argue that its owners might think the game is just about getting the best players and misses the part where you have to get managers that can build the teams that can execute their winning vision. In Man United, I see a team of good players, where the coach, like coaches in the U.S., have to make due with what they have, rather than get the right pieces for their game plan.

And, while soccer fans love to follow their transcendent favorites, they also love to follow their local teams and cheer them on, too. Those are the 2nd and 3rd tier leagues in England and MLS, maybe, if they have a local team.

These soccer fans don’t get bored watching their transcendent teams continue to pile on results because they are watching the best do what they do.

Pro/rel would connect a lot of disconnected pieces in soccer

One thing that bugs me about soccer is how often I miss the local MLS game because I’m either busy playing soccer or had a game to coach.

It’s hard to imagine a solution. Why would adult and youth soccer teams organize their schedules around the pro team? They are all independent of each other and have no incentive to organize their schedules around each other.

What most folks miss in pro/rel is that the club becomes the organizer of the the local pro team, adult leagues and youth soccer. It connects all these up. And they have more incentive to organize their amateur youth and adult schedules around the pro team, so more people can watch the pro team, as that becomes the main event each week.

They become what is more authentically known as ‘club supporters,’ which is a marketing term in the U.S. to refer to season ticket holders.

But, it’s easy to see it has more meaning in countries where ‘supporters’ are folks that belong to a club where they play, maybe volunteer coach, and where their kids play or grew up playing.

How US Soccer impacts your pickup

A couple yokels on Twitter were poking fun at a pro/rel supporter who said US soccer is repressing soccer at all levels in the US.

“He thinks US soccer is repressing my weekly soccer pickup. Haha”

Jokes on them.

As the famous French economist pointed out in his Parable of the Broken Window, there are things that can and things that cannot be seen.

Rather than being persuasive, these yokels demonstrated that they lack knowledge for the things that cannot be seen.

What they can’t see here is how US Soccer’s policies have limited their pickup.

If US Soccer organized soccer by world standards set in the the guidelines of its charter organization, FIFA, chances are good that there would be land-based soccer clubs dotting cities and towns across the country where pickup soccer was just one of the many activities it hosted, making it easier to get games going more often with better facilities.